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Inquiry Based Learning, Culturally Relevant and Responsive Pedagogy and Student Voice

Critical Knowledge Building

When I was a relatively new teacher, I worked in a school, well more specifically in a portable, where 80% of my students were English Language Learners. They, in many cases, spoke multiple languages. At the time, I was completing my Masters of Education and the focus of my thesis was to modify the curriculum for these students…not modify in the special education sense where they have reduced or altered expectations, but modify in the way that we now call Culturally Relevant and Responsive Pedagogy. This was in 1996. As a new teacher, I didn’t necessarily have the language to describe what I saw but I knew that these students from Afghanistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Croatia, did not need to learn “mitten”, “scarf”, “snow”. They needed the language that was most present. They needed the words to share their story, not mine.

Fast forward ten years and I am completing my Doctorate in Education and this time I have had the good fortune to take this thinking to a whole other level. This time, through my work at the Ministry of Education, at the Ontario Knowledge Network for Learning, I had learned about Knowledge Building through the Institute of Child Study. I will never forget that day when grade five students presented to a room full of adults from universities, school boards and the Ministry. They talked about the questions they had, the ways in which they sought to understand them, their own perspectives, who they relied on in their class for different ideas because they had learned not only to listen, to question, to challenge but to build on each other’s ideas as valuable sources of information.

My focus had always been antiracism, and in particular, through the teachings of George Dei, I learned about how this theory could be incorporated into every instructional and assessment decision I made. I understood from my learning that knowledge was not neutral, that we held value over some ways of thinking and that our schools were agents of what I now understand, thanks to Marie Battiste, is called Cognitive Imperialism. My thesis, Critical Pathways Towards Antiracism in an Elementary Knowledge Building Classroom, examined Scardamalia’s Knowledge Building Principles (2002) and enhanced George Dei’s Antiracism Education Principles and Concerns for Antiracism Education (1996) to create Common Themes Working Towards Critical Knowledge Building (2006). This was also, simultaneously and iteratively tested in an elementary classroom. Significant shifts occurred in the learning environment — what was considered valuable in terms of skill, knowledge and cultural capital changed through this instruction. Knowing that power exists in all spaces, I sought to disrupt it.

My academic work had always been in the field of antiracism and my professional work was increasingly moving towards what we now refer to as Global Competencies in its many forms. There are different ways in which these competencies are defined and accessed — technology integration, inquiry based learning, problem based learning, real world learning, experiential learning — the list goes on but what is often sorely missed from this discourse is a critical lens. This is where my doctoral work sat — at the intersection of the cognitive psychology of learning and critical race theory.

When I first began writing essays in high school, I would always write about my thinking, my beliefs, my learning — much like I do today but then, I was quickly told that my thinking and ideas did not matter. What mattered was that I could regurgitate the ideas that already existed. It was far more important that I learn to cite the dead White men than it was for me to consider, challenge, question, formulate, discourse, disrupt or even disagree with the thinking of these far more important, far more celebrated, far more famous people than it was for me to think.

When my son was a little guy, preschool age, we went to our local community centre for a program. He would play with toys and the instructor would read stories. Always working, it was a rare occasion that I could bring my little one to any programs but I must have had an appointment because there I was. I had just joined a new board where language and alignment was everything. One of the strategies for reading was called, Think Aloud. It seems pretty obvious but I did not trust my common sense and I had asked what that strategy was and truthfully it is what it sounds like. The pedagogy behind it is to share, as the reader, what you are thinking about while you read — what are the connections you are making while you read the words, hear the story, see the pictures. It is to make a very personal private experience explicit so that learning and reading become demystified. It is tied to constructivism and the idea that we co-construct meaning, we are meaning makers. It reinforces that the “I” matters. What I bring to the text, any text, matters. So back to my little Maxie’s community centre program …There they were — about about 20 two- and three-year-olds listening to a story, calling out, sharing their thinking, their wondering, their imaginations and the whole time the teacher is saying, “Shhh, not while I am reading. You can share your thinking afterwards.”

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Except no one ever did. They were two and three years old. They had moved on. So it was at that moment that I thought, we silence them and teach them to listen to us but we don’t listen to them. We teach them that if it is published and in print, it matters but if it is your thinking, your ideas, your imagination, your questions, it is an interruption. Then, when they get older, we teach them how to think so it suits us, in our time, with our content, with our values.

People ask me to explain why inquiry based learning and why, for me, it is the way we must teach to bring multiple perspectives, voice, interests, passions, knowledge, language, ways of being and knowing into our classrooms. Last week in the #DecolonizingEdVoicEd podcast, led by my friend, Colinda Clyne, the author of Decolonizing Education: Nourishing the Learning Spirit, Marie Battiste said, we must “take every child from where they are to another place for them to understand, who they are, what they have for gifts, and to understand they are on a journey to share those gifts”.

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When we impose our beliefs, our values, our preferences, our literature, our algorithms, our understanding of the world, nature, science, history, our comfort onto the students in our care, recognize that we too are part of the colonial project that enforces White supremacy, Eurocentrism, and oppression. To teach from a space of inquiry, student voice, interest, passion and gifts, and yes, all children have gifts, then we open up to the spaces of possibility in our classrooms, schools and most importantly, the students we serve.

Do you want to read more of my writing? Check out my publication, Reflective Stance on my website, http://debbiedonsky.com

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Written by

REFLECTIVE STANCE writer, thinker, drawer, painter, designer, mommy, teacher, leader, learner of all things debbiedonsky.com

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